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Creative Content Ideas; Learning from the Professionals

The Scarcest Resource of the 21st century is Human Attention“The Scarcest Resource of the 21st Century is Human Attention” yet, as per Eric Schmidt’s much-discussed 2010 speech,“…we create as much information every two days now as we did from the dawn of man up to 2003” (Source: TechCrunch)

This is something of a paradox, that the attention required to read is more scarce than ever before, yet we are producing more reading material than ever. To compound the problem, an unquantifiable chunk of this content has a quality issue. Going beyond the dubious merits of user generated content, which is of little interest beyond the posters’ original sphere of influence, the content that is being produced is often of risible quality.

Quality control is an issue for everyone, from small marketing firms trying to grow their share of the search pie (and rank for keywords) to full blown publishing behemoths. To make everyone feel a little bit better about their role in this content avalanche, here is a salient reminder from the Huffington Post of the challenges of editing at scale,  in an article listing twenty different mac keyboard tips:

Keyboard tips

I have redacted the offensive word but it is alarming that this word even made it through their editorial process at all.

Solution: Quality > Quantity

Clearly, quality control issues affect us all and if you factor in the inconvenient truth that most marketing people do not want to admit, that your keywords are unlikely to change a great deal (with the exception of search engines and publishers) it becomes clear that constantly producing new content on new subjects, subjects that are more and more removed from your core business product or service, may not be the right strategy.

The time and money involved is often onerous for smaller businesses and all too often, content strategies, already slow to generate revenue (taking an average of 18 months to generate greater ROI than PPC), are abandoned. Leaving a website with thorough but dated content.  In terms of resources and budget it might make more sense to maintain your basic evergreen content and to make this the main component of your content strategy, with content creation playing a lesser role.

One site that does this well  is Treehouse, the coding forum. They have a good system for updating older content, which is incredibly valuable to users, as html and css coding conventions evolve quickly, meaning that how-to posts quickly become obsolete. Upon arriving on a page, the following update below is very helpful as it is current and reassures me that I am not about to waste my time understanding an outdated solution.

Post amendment notification

Treehouse’s subject, coding, is well-suited to this idea of maintenance rather than creation, because the problems with which new developers struggle do not change, only the solutions. So before commissioning a new piece of content, first assess if there is any older, once-popular content that is now out-of-date and not attracting as many readers or the time on page number has tailed off. If so, it may well be more cost-effective to update that content, with an explainer as per the Treehouse example above, rather than recreate another page.

From a pure SEO perspective you might argue that creating a new URL and potentially targeting slightly different keywords is more beneficial to a business’ web presence. However I counter that a well-maintained, up-to-date page on one URL, with all associated link equity is just as valuable, if not more so, because your pages are not competing with each other to rank. Another secondary benefit is that by streamlining your site’s footprint, you are doing your bit to keep the site maintenance simple.

When Creation > Maintenance

In those instances when there is a valid reason to launch new content, such as a  shift in the market, or the launch of a new product, look to the professionals for guidance on quality control. For, although I love the democracy that comes with expert bloggers, I respect the professionals, the journalists and PR people who write and package content for a living. By following some of their standards, you can rise to their level.

Below are just some of the themes I have noticed, whether through diligent reading or pressing drunk journos and PR reps in wine bars to share their strategies about what works.

Ideas “borrowed” from the journalists

Identify Broad Influencers

When creating content for branding reasons, look to popular coffee table books and nonfiction books in the New York Times’ Best-Sellers list. The theory here is that these cultural influencers are already household-names, that their work is sufficiently well-known or referenced in the press that it is already familiar to a lot of people. You can borrow their concept and apply it to your subject, applying, for example Freakonomics-style thinking to statistical outliers in your area, whether it’s house sales or selling halloween costumes.

If you really want to get ahead of the competition, get on publishers’ mailing lists and subscribe to their press emails. If this path isn’t fruitful contact the publisher’s advertising department and try to speak to someone on the telephone, as an email soliciting information is too easy to ignore. The advertisers have a big lead time before publication, so they know what is in the pipeline in terms of releases. This approach allows you to get up to date on Malcolm Gladwell’s oeuvre before the wider internet has noticed that there is a new book coming out.

In terms of established  authors, another tip is to follow Amazon’s author pages which will keep you updated on the author’s future publications as well as recommending other authors, using Amazon’s famous recommendation engine. This tool in particular is especially helpful as it will broaden your search. For anyone struggling with this idea, I have included a list of my favourites at the end of this article.

Malcolm Gladwell

Industry-Specific Experts

If you are making claims or wish to align yourself with bigwigs in the industry, it is important to cite your sources.. It’s all too easy to google something and then grab the first result that supports your theory.  Fact-checking is really valuable so be more  rigorous in this regard as it can save awkward questions later on. Professional journalists do not write like this, their editors will not let them. Instead, look to LinkedIn and industry-level professional organisations to speak to experts to make sure you are backing up your ideas.

If your subject or product is related in anyway to medicine, contact teaching hospitals to speak to their press office. If you are conducting any research, try to have at least 2,000 responses as this is considered a large enough dataset to be relevant. Survey Monkey have also produced a helpful chart, covering survey size and the margin of error involved.

Some tips from the PR world

For a story to be worthy of PR efforts, it has to have at least one of the following hooks. As

PR shapes so much of the news we end up reading, or certainly how it is packaged, it makes sense to apply similar quality control to your own output.

Timeliness: does your story overlap with the anniversary of a news event?

Responding to a breaking news story isn’t always easy but news events aside, there are regularly occurring events or anniversaries that might be applicable to your industry, try searching wikipedia for key events in history that might be relevant.

One quick note, trust your judgment, creating content to profit from a tragedy is unacceptable.

Impact: will it impact a lot of people?

For example, films and TV programs joining or leaving Netflix is now a worthy subject and is covered every month by Refinery29. As fluffy as it sounds, it affects my life and plenty like me, so I read the email newsletter and click through to the article.

Prominence – does this story have prominence by virtue of the people involved?

For example, are you using a celebrity or spokesperson. Or, is this a massive story and you have something new to say? It is important to move the story on, for it to be considered newsworthy and the same criteria, when applied to your own content will help to eliminate the trend for writing something because you have to.

Proximity – does it affect a local population?

This sort of story is more engaging to the local media and therefore local residents. If you have a bricks and mortar store, or a regional promotion, this will be of interest to people in that area, as such you can really push local references, whether it’s known traffic hot-spots or the local football team.

Bizarre – is there any sort of odd element to your proposed story?

For example, if you are a hair salon, are a high proportion of your clients called “Rachel”? What is the most popular cut for retirees?  Look at the data and look for outliers and oddities, that would be considered news-worthy. The subsequent content can be informal, friendly and eminently shareable, via web and on social platforms.

Currency – embrace the flavour of the month

As everyone is talking about the opening weekend of Jurassic World for example, is there any element in that story that you can get involved with?

Human or Quadruped Interest

People like bad news, a sob story or, if all else fails, a cute quadruped, all of which will be popular with readers. If you are a ticket-selling company for example, did you help a client get his dream ticket or go above and beyond to get them to the gig?

Everyday problems – a problem we can all relate to

Every other week there is a news article about the cost of parking, escalating rent, the fight to get your children into a good school, these are all problems that impact the lives of millions of people. If anything that your company does addresses or alleviates these issues in any way, it is a useful tactic for your content.

These are just some of the tactics I have learnt, through observation and discussion, it is by no means completist, so I encourage anyone with handy hacks to share them in the comments. Sometimes a fresh approach is all that is needed to really inject some vitality into your content, whether it’s maintenance or creation. What works for you?

Broad Cultural Influencers – some of my favourites:



Sarah Kershaw is a digital marketing consultant and writer based in New York City, working with an array of clients to optimise their digital footprint. She is interested in the mysteries of the intuitive user experience and the power of words.